Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it. . . .
Hannah Arendt, Teaching as Leading
To do a good job, it’s important to believe that we have time. Hurrying would be a mistake. To hurry, the Chinese proverb tells us, is to eat soup with a fork. All the difficulties we face can be solved, if we think in long enough time frames. Some problems require years of work. Some require decades, and some require generations. Artists at their work experience time as the ground from which their sensibility bodies forth into the world. For them as for lovers, time is deep and endless. There is enough and more.
Time is the very stuff of life. What we make of it is ultimately all we are. Introducing young people to the depths of time and what has happened there is important work. We should help them to feel and understand time as an inexhaustible wealth.
Unfortunately, students in many schools experience time in the way it is experienced by prisoners and slaves: as a burden. Because they can do no work, but only tasks and chores, their identity becomes weak and faint. Hope fades. Time hangs. The clock barely moves. Desire asphyxiates. Those who have gone into our classrooms to study what happens there report that little happens. Things are controlled but not much occurs. People goof off, but not with much zest, and nobody really cares. Boredom and lethargy rule. When we pass through airports, we are reminded of the way the administered life drifts toward endless lines, endless forms, slow motion order and the pervasive feeling of impotence to accelerate or change the process. Time, the very stuff of life, is wasted.
There is another way to get no work done, and that is to dissipate ourselves in a thousand tasks. This is the plight of many of us today. Our modern world developed with and through our technologies of organizing time. In the early 1400s a new technology-clocks-changed people’s relationship to each other by increasing their ability to coordinate their activities. Clocks were too large and expensive for individual ownership, but huge clock towers were built in the centers of many towns. The periodic tolling of great iron bells drifted through the countryside. Folks suddenly able to coordinate individual schedules with new precision began to collaborate in ways they had not previously imagined.
Today, we live in an extraordinarily organized society in which all of us keep, or are kept by, schedules. Our highly elaborated and precise sense of time has allowed for a society organized to an unprecedented degree, within which nearly all of us are specialists. An artist ordering invitations for a show featuring his old-fashioned oil paintings might drop his sketch off at a quick print franchise on main street. He need not be at all aware of what happens next: with clocks ticking every step of the way, the design is digitalized and bounced off a satellite to a print shop in Hong Kong where the bits are reconverted to atoms, arranged as black patterns on white paper. The package of printed invitations is rushed to the Hong Kong airport and loaded onto a jet. Later that week, the artist picks up the finished job back on main street. This everyday task required the organization of hundreds of people. It’s the way we live now.
But though society has never been so organized and we know our lives are deeply entangled with other people’s lives, we have never been more isolated in private agendas and personal schedules. We rush to appointments and meetings, bumping others on their way to other appointments and meetings. Time, it seems, has become the scarcest of resources. Thirty seconds of “gray bar time”-waiting for a computer program to finish-can seem much too long. Each of us now has our own clock strapped to our arms and mounted on our dashboards, and we rush through the week without a village tower in sight. Time, the very stuff of life, seems to be running out.
For the most part, we did not shape the systems that now shape us. We don’t even know for sure who did shape them or what they are really up to. Because commerce has made the most visible and spectacular use of modern organization, we suspect that a lot of what is happening is because someone is making money. Though this may not be bad, enriching someone else is hardly a goal that brings people together. Instead, we tend to keep moving, trying to put aside a little something for ourselves. Time is money, it seems.
The world is moving faster and faster and change is the name of the game, the somewhat manic consultants keep assuring us. We need to forget faster and faster, just to make room for the new. Who remembers DOS commands?
At a town meeting not long ago the school superintendent became quite animated, talking about the pressures that rapid change put upon schools. His voice getting urgent, he cited statistics and painted a picture in which we were all going to become obsolescent if we didn’t do something. Our students were not prepared for the world that was forming around us. He was trained to keep up with the times. I wondered if that training had given him the perspective to distinguish between a fad and a trend. I wondered if it had given him the experience to set priorities wisely.
I suggested that if many things were changing too rapidly for schools to keep up, maybe more time should be spent studying things that changed very slowly, if they changed at all.
He looked perplexed. “What things might those be?” he asked.
Running a school, by his lights, was not all that different from playing a video game. Keep your eyes on the screen. Keep moving. Last year it was community service. Right now it is school-to-work. Whatever. Just react. Hurry. We need to change.
The unfortunate effect of such leadership is a kind of self-inflicted dementia. Dedication to staying in sync with rapidly changing fads leads schools to change directions with every shifting breeze of fashion. One school I worked for was like a person with Alzheimer’s, unable to remember from moment to moment what it was doing, what remained to be done or even who its friends were. We began lots of things but finished nothing. The bookshelves in the administrative offices were laden with unread binders, all that was left of abandoned projects that not so long ago had been touted as the solution to our worst problems.
Every apostle of change wants to retrain all the teachers, of course, so teachers were accustomed to being corralled into workshops and given lots of handouts and hearing lots of promises, but they knew there would be no follow through. Next year they would be on to something different. They would efficiently forget all this. They sat politely but they no longer really listened.
When I was studying to become an English teacher in the late 1970s, one of the books I was given to read was The Educated Imagination, first published in 1964 by Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Near the end of that book, Frye said that “The society around us looks like the real world, but . . . there’s a great deal of illusion in it, the kind of illusion that propaganda and slanted news and prejudice and a great deal of advertising appeal to. . .It changes very rapidly, and people who don’t know of any other world can never understand what makes it change.”
Might not this have been written this morning? Frye goes on to argue that the real world is not the one that’s changing. “The real world,” he says, “is the world of what humanity has done, and therefore can do, the world revealed to us in the arts and sciences. This is the world that won’t go away, the world out of which we built the Canada of 1942, are now building the Canada of 1962, and will be building the quite different Canada of 1982.”
The real world, like gravity, may be invisible. We do not see it but see its effects. The best education is about learning to apprehend, behind those effects, the things that do not change: the timeless patterns and the eternal forces. These are things that educators, even school superintendents, might usefully ponder, if they can find the time.
The Art of Slow Thinking
The most powerful education is not driven by markets or election cycles. Instead, it aims passing on cultural knowledge that has taken centuries to build and that will remain useful even after our business partners change and our transportation systems are re-invented. It’s okay that cultural mores and institutional practices change more slowly than markets. That’s their job.
“Don’t hurry,” should be the motto inscribed over every schoolroom door. But also, “Don’t stop. Don’t waste time.” Schools should primarily be caretakers of the slow knowledge we call wisdom.
Teachers should be less interested in high velocity markets and the shifting priorities of political election cycles than in passing on the techniques of intelligence–such things as how to evaluate evidence, how to use math to perceive patterns too large or too small for direct observation, what it takes to develop friendships and alliances, how to organize a town and hold it together, what it feels like to win a kingdom but lose your soul, how fights begin and how they end, how justice comes into the world and how it perishes, how to discern between things ephemeral and things of permanent worth and so on.
Change, of course, is assured–indeed, it is irrepressible. But the more things change, the more important it becomes that we learn to see what does not change, or changes only slowly. We need to know what is solid ground. We need firm footing to wrestle with what comes.
Familiarity with the past more than anything else provides us with that footing. In times of rapid change the institutions we most need to strengthen are those that preserve memory. The most reliable way to know something of the future is to know the past. It is long memory that encourages the longest possible view of the future.
In The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand reports that in 1980 the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department announcing that the ship lumber that had been requested was ready. In 1829, the Swedish Parliament had ordered twenty thousand trees planted on Visingsö, in the lake Vätern. It took 150 years for an oak to mature and they anticipated a shortage of ship lumber during the 1990s. The move had been opposed by the Bishop of Strängnäs because he didn’t believe people would still have wars by then and even if they did ships would probably no longer be made of wood. Parliament overrode him. They got the details wrong but by thinking in the long term they did the right thing anyway. The worth of that mature oak forest today is beyond calculation.
Wisdom tends to come to older people because they have had to live with more consequences of bad choices. As people see and understand longer time frames, their thinking gets stronger and their decision making gets better. The same is true of institutions. Wendell Berry has noted that morality is nothing other than long-term practicality, and companies that rely on repeat customers tend to be more honest and fair than those who believe that tomorrow will always be a brand new game.
The single simplest thing to do to make schools more sensible institutions and to make the education they deliver of more worth is to develop institutional practices that lead people-administrators, teachers, board members, parents and students-to consider what is happening over much longer periods of time. Schools today need institutional practices and institutional goals that organize their daily labors around visions longer than a 45-minute period, longer than a semester, longer than a superintendent’s tenure, longer than this political cycle’s hot problem and longer even than a teacher’s career.
It may be helpful to think about what James P. Carse, religion professor at New York University, calls “the infinite game.” He says “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.” Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game. A business deal is a finite game. A religion is an infinite game.
Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars built upon Carse’s thought. In a finite game, they pointed out, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.
In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.
In a finite game, the players’ aims are identical. In an infinite game, the players’ aims are diverse.
In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.
In a finite game, energy is focused in short-term, decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.
Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue.
Good schools, like good communities, good economies and good families, are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don’t displace the larger play or corrupt it. James Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.
The story of that one infinite game is the right story for schools to organize their practices around.
Playing the Infinite Game
I have some thoughts about the infinite game and how it should be played. So do you. Here are the basics: it includes everybody, it involves all knowledge, and it includes all of the past and all of the future. That’s quite a bit. So where do we start?
We start with families. Family, suggests historian Elliott West, is the tool that can help students connect all the disconnections of time and place they face in the modern world. In a speech to the Montana Heritage Project he pointed out that “Families intertwine the chaotic details of every past time and bind them with the present and with us. For those of us interested in how societies have worked, families have always been the center of ordinary human lives. Their greatest power is to implicate you and me in the emotional world of real people who have come and gone, people we will join soon enough.”
He suggested that we study the past using our own families as a point of entry, and as a linking principle. Fortunately, recommending the study of family history as one of the animating principles of schools is not a quixotic thing to do. In fact, the evidence suggests that millions already feel this is just what they need and are flocking toward it. Just as people responded to the realities of their sedentary lives in the 1970s by taking up jogging and finding gyms, people today are responding to the feeling of disconnection in today’s world by flocking in vast numbers toward family history, which at its best is genuine history but with a personal connection.
Doing family history research is not simply about creating pedigree charts. Rather, it is about understanding the human experience. Through the internet, people are connecting not only with their distant ancestors, re-imagining the worlds they knew and pondering what they faced and how their world grew into our world, they are also connecting with like-minded people around the world. They are forming, of their own free will, ambitions on a massive scale. These ambitions will only be realized by shared effort. Stewart Brand points out that “Thousands of users of a program called Family Tree Maker are linking their research into a World Family Tree on the Web. So far it has tied together seventy-five thousand family trees, a total of fifty million names. The goal, once unthinkable, is to eventually document and link every named human who ever lived.”
Every named human who ever lived. Think about that for a moment, or maybe even for an hour.
Through a focus on family history research, students can be drawn to oral history, which involves reading, writing, speaking, listening, summarizing and analyzing as well as the fundamental work of turning towards elders with interest and compassion. They can be drawn to primary document research, which includes making a research plan, using finding aids, writing letters, evaluating conflicting evidence and synthesizing original conclusions. They can be drawn to published texts that treat historical periods, specific events, political history, personal experience and the rest of the human record.
But that’s not all. As they join the worldwide effort of others who are trying to understand the world through the work of finding their families, they will find that they can contribute to the world’s memory. They can discover what has been lost. They can contribute important information to the shared work.
The work of reconstructing the past is not a passing fad but a historical trend that cannot be turned back or stopped any more than the industrial revolution could have been halted. Those who decide to help with the work will find that history is on their side. In Thoreau’s terms, they will “meet with success unanticipated in commoner hours.”
They will begin to see that this work drives other work. They will see that in doing this work, the stories of various sects become entangled with one another. Muslims and Jews find each other connected through not just through their modems but also through the intertwined stories of their intertwined families.
Conducting family history research is a central human project at this time and as we do it we will put vast amounts of the world’s knowledge online and we will steadily increase all people’s access to it. The distributed research and linked computers of millions of searchers will exceed by many orders of magnitude the power of the government’s largest super-computers.
That woman in Ireland who is looking for an uncle who was last heard from somewhere in Montana in 1875-how is she to find what happened to him? The answer may lie on a gravestone in that cemetery just up the hill on the windswept prairies. If she had the name and the date on that gravestone, she could find an obituary, and if she had the obituary she might have the name of employers, information about historical events that touched his life. One thing leads to another and to another and, given time, to all things.
Right now there is work to do. The cemetery records, the courthouse records of real estate transactions and marriages, it can all be put online. Students who share this work and learn to organize information, to create and maintain data bases, to research and to write, and to place a value upon the human record will not be getting a provincial education. They will be stepping into the central story of our times.
To find every person who has ever lived, people in each village and town and city need to find those who lived there. While people in Scotland or China are finding your relatives there, you can help them find theirs where you are. Much of this is work that students can do. Much of it is work that grandparents can do. And much of it is work that they can share.
Schools that act as catalysts for this work will find support coming from every direction. They will find that students are motivated, teachers revitalized and communities re-engaged. They will, of course, continue other studies and they will still have proms and basketball games. The infinite game, after all, has room for us all with all our interests.
And though we start with families, we don’t stop there. Family history leads to community history, and community history leads to national and world history and history includes all other disciplines. As schools, in partnerships with museums and historical societies, begin to maintain community archives containing research done by students and other community members, these archives will become the most important institution in the school.
If you would like to test the educational value of such materials, you can conduct a simple test. Set up two tables in a classroom. On one table, put the most seductive materials you can locate from the large publishers of educational materials, with their four-color illustrations and lavish layouts. On the other table place some old photographs of the local neighborhood, a few old maps of the place and a collection of old newspapers. Bring some kids into the room and watch where they go and what they do. Be ready to be quiet for a while, because the students will not hear you. They’ll be buzzing with excitement, pointing things out to one another.
A good local archives will include long-term ecological studies, local geography, studies of transportation systems and public utilities and studies of local folkways and traditions. Caring for such a collection of local research and adding to it will be everyone’s responsibility. And the work that is done in such schools will not be ephemera, as most school work has been. It will be intended to last forever.
Joined in Time
Some of the work will be in file folders, awaiting the right researcher to take it farther. Some will be in published documents, that hold in place organized bodies of work that have been done. And some will be ready for publication online. Since the work is intended to last forever, it is not done in undue haste.
The collection will not seem grand at first. The first year it might have only fourteen biographical essays done by a senior English class. But fourteen essays is something, if it is kept. In ten years, the value will be more clear. There will be hundreds of documents, and teachers who had shown no interest at the beginning will begin to pay attention. Nearly every student in their classes will be able to find information on their own families. This will provoke further questions.
In twenty years, everyone will understand the value of what is being done. The archives will be quite large and everybody will have a personal interest in some part of it. Community members will come to the school to do their own research alongside students.
In doing the work, they will come to understand more and more of what it has meant and now means to be human. They will see the world from all its perspectives: that of victors, that of the defeated, that of women, that of kings, that of slaves. They might be brought to ponder the way consequences follow actions, not always quickly and not always fairly. They might meditate on justice. They might learn new songs. They might be stirred to compassion.
Maybe they learn that every life has its lessons to teach, and that if those lessons are learned then every life, no matter how hopeless it might have seemed, has its value. As Elliott West reminded us, “All of us sleep with ghosts. When we invite them into our own day, we learn about the world they knew, and how it grew into ours. But we do something more. We resurrect our humanness.”
In fifty years, people will have a hard time imagining a school without an archives. A school without an archives would be, would be-well, a place full of busy work, a place where time was a burden and people watched the clock and waited, a place where nothing that was done was real or permanent, a place where people thought mostly about token rewards and cliques, a place where people were bored and restless and angry-in other words, a place where people wasted the very essence of their lives: time.
Whoever you are, if you are still you might feel the stirring of ghosts, of lost souls returning, bearing gifts, walking the halls and towers of a vast library where all the voices of humanity speak as a stirring in the dust. Wherever you are, if you listen slowly enough, you might hear now the gentle tolling of a giant bell in a distant commons, calling you home.
It’s only a story, but a story already coming true.